Nisei – conclusion – Nisei WACs

If you were asked to describe a “soldier,” what kind of image does that word conjure up in your mind? Popular media has generally portrayed the American soldier as a muscular white male, or sometimes a white female, and while they may have constituted the majority of the U.S. military force, history fails to give recognition to the Asian American women who contributed to the U.S.’s victory by taking on many different roles during World War II to assist the armed forces.

Starting in 1943, Japanese women, known as “Nisei” or (first generation born from immigrants), were accepted by the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) and the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) to work as nurses and doctors to provide medical care and as Military Intelligence Service officers and linguists.. Though Asian American women served many important functions in World War II, they are still overlooked or completely ignored in modern discourse.

This post focuses on the Nisei women who served as linguists and their struggles balancing their identities as an American woman and a Japanese woman, while studying their mother tongue under considerable pressure at the U.S. War Department’s Military Intelligence Service Language School in Fort Snelling, Minnesota.

Their histories and struggles during the war are just as valid as any other American war veteran’s experiences out on the field. Women began turning them away from their traditional societal roles as homemakers and caretakers towards more proactive roles opening up in the factories and the military.

Private Shizuko Shinagawa, 21, of the Women’s Army Corps, who was sent to Denver to recruit Japanese-American women for the WAC. May 22, 1944, Denver, Colorado. Courtesy of WRA no. G-563, War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement, BANC PIC 1967.014–PIC, the Bancroft Library

For Japanese Americans, on the West Coast, however, with Japan being the “enemy nation” after bombing Pearl Harbor in 1941, they were labeled as “enemy aliens” and by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, forced from their homes into internment camps. The military recognized the need to improve intelligence operations and trained and recruited specialists in the Japanese language to serve as interpreters, interrogators, and translators, and so around 5,500 Nisei were assigned to the Military Intelligence Service.

Nisei soldiers in Oregon

With struggles against racism combined with normalized sexism in the military, Nisei women, and many other Asian American women, had a unique experience while serving their country. While Military administrators rationalized the idea of accepting women, especially Japanese American women, it was under gendered and racialized reasoning. The WACs were given assignments that “did not transcend the domestic sphere”, therefore stuck behind desks doing clerical work. Furthermore, they were expected to emphasize their femininity through their physical appearances, “feminine” meaning short skirts and makeup. Along with these demands, the Nisei WACS were also expected to act as “American women” but retain their Japanese linguistic heritage in order “to serve as role models as Japanese women.

Nisei WACs

Like many second or third-generation Asian Americans today, Nisei WACs did not all possess fluency in Japanese, especially not at the level needed to comprehend military-related documents, hence they were sent to MIS school to learn Japanese.

Difficulties:
“I wasn’t very strong in Japanese, coming from an area [Idaho] where there were no Orientals. We just didn’t speak the language… And so, when we were sent to Japan, I had an awful hard time working with [Japanese] military terms…Some of the girls from Hawaii used to work as radio announcers in Japanese. They had a lot more training and they could read and write [Japanese] fluently. At Fort Snelling, I was in one of the lowest classes, just learning the basics.

Nisei Women’s Army Corps, Ft. Snelling

After they graduated from MISLS, they were assigned to various military sectors and helped the military forces immensely. Many of the graduates worked at war crimes trials as translators and interrogators and helped link a number of atrocities to individual Japanese by the captured diaries and letters, written during wartime, that they studied. Maybe one of their most impressive contributions, in the Civil Affairs branch, was censorship- screening the press, inspecting the postal system, watching communications of all kinds, and helping to find out what “has gone on in Japan these many years.” These linguists classified approximately 2,000,000 Japanese documents according to tactical, strategic, or long-range value. In all, they translated some 20,000,000 pages.


The WAC’s and other Nisei linguists’ work for the United States should be honored and remembered. They wanted to serve in the U.S. military for various reasons, but mainly to show their loyalty to the United States. Some were also motivated by reasons that were rooted in their culture and status in their family and community. One former Nisei WAC, Grace Harada reveals her discussion with her parents on why she felt the need to serve in the military:
“They just felt that I shouldn’t be doing something like that, and going so far away from
home. But I told them that I just couldn’t stay home and do housework. I wasn’t accomplishing anything. [Harada’s brother had already joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.] I said [to my parents] “There is a war going on and he can’t do it alone.” …I said what I would be doing is replacing all these men to help end the war. I tried to talk with my parents into letting me go, and finally they released me and signed the consent for me to go in.”

Nisei female nursing cadets

With political circumstances so against them, the Nisei had made every effort to forget their Japanese heritage and prove they are “American.”  The experience of attending the MISLS was both a challenge and a chance for the Nisei, to balance both of their identities for a cause and prove their loyalty to their homeland, the United States. Furthermore, as Nisei women, they constantly had to navigate social norms and persevere against sexually and racially intertwined expectations to serve as model American women in Japan, yet maintain their “Japanese-ness” to be competent translators. Their experiences are invaluable in that they not only but also expand one’s perspective of what kind of people serve in the military but also add another complex layer to the Asian American narrative.

Click on images to enlarge.

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Military Humor –

Saturday Evening Post, 1943

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Farewell Salutes – 

Marley Arthurholtz – KY; USMC, WWII, Pfc., USS Oklahoma, KIA, Pearl Harbor

Leonard Brink – Grand Rapids, MI; US Army, WWII, 110/28th Division

Last Flight

Carmen J. Covino (102) – Hamburg, NY; US Army, WWII, ETO

Robert Hatch – Woods Cross, UT; USMC, WWII, PTO, Pfc., D Co./6th Marines, machine-gunner, KIA Tarawa

Rosario Lindberg – Davao, P.I.; Civilian, WWII, PTO, Filipino guerrilla fighter, interpreter for Allies during Japanese trials

Miles Riley – Gooding, ID; US Army, 11th Airborne Division

Joseph Rogers (101) – Royal Oak, MI; US Army, WWII, 95th Chemical Mortar Battalion / Korea, 24th Infantry, Col. (Ret. 31 y.)

Arthur Schaeffer – Philadelphia, PA; US Army, Korea, 82nd Airborne Division

Edward Tyree – Lexington, NC; US Army, Vietnam, 173rd Airborne Division, Purple Heart

Maria Winship – brn: GER/Denver, CO; Civilian, WWII, ETO, translator

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About GP Cox

Everett Smith served with the Headquarters Company, 187th Regiment, 11th A/B Division during WWII. This site is in tribute to my father, "Smitty." GPCox is a member of the 11th Airborne Association. Member # 4511 and extremely proud of that fact!

Posted on October 3, 2019, in WWII and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 130 Comments.

  1. Informative article. It was racist to intern Japanese Americans. The Japanese government were the enemy at the time not American citizens of Japanese ancestry. I hope someday the truth will be not just revealed but acknowledged by the Japanese government about the atrocities they committed against innocent children and women that were sex trafficked, known as “comfort women”. Most of the victims were from Korea and there are a few still alive who are waiting for an apology that never will come. Very sad what happened. Thank you for sharing your information about the racism against Asian-American women.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Every country has its black marks in their history, but I don’t believe we need to erase that history (for fear of offending someone), we need to learn those spots so that they don’t re-occur. I’m very happy you found the article interesting and I appreciate you making the correlation with the “comfort women.”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post gp, enjoyed learning the background story’s on your posts, this one regarding the role the Nisei women played in the war is a great example, well done mate.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. One of my roommates in academy and college was Japanese American, third generation. His family’s property was to be taken by the emotional government decree of the President, but a local family told them to give it to them and they would return it when cooler heads prevailed. After the war, they kept their word and gave this large acreage of extremely valuable farmland back to the Ikeda family. It still warms my heart to think of this story, knowing firsthand that it’s 100% true. Good people like you and the Loomis family are everywhere.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am struck by what incredible challenges they faced, G. And admiration. Thanks. –Curt

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The complexities of the women’s situation were considerable. That they were able to rise above them with such grace is a testament to their character as individuals, and their commitment as a group. It really is inspiring to read about them; I’m glad you included them in your overview of the Nisei’s participation in the war.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hey, I heard from LordBeariOfBow’s daughter, Sarah, today and she said, “If you could thank everyone (on WordPress) for me that would be fantastic. Dad would have loved to read the tributes and messages.”

    So I wanted to pass on her thank-you!
    (((HUGS))) 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Good stuff as always, gpcox!

    One thing I can attest to: as she said, learning Japanese was tough. It didn’t matter what your background was. It is difficult to learn it – let alone writing it.

    My uncle who passed away five years ago was farmboy stateside. He spole ZERO Japanese. When they drafted him out of Ameche, he was put into the MISLS. Whatever he learned was an accomplishment but his accent was horrible. 🙂

    Also, I firmly believe their serving in the war crimes trials was clerical. Only true bilinguals (Kibei) like my dad translated during the actual trials of which there were thousands – held in Quonset huts. To explain further, English speaking Nisei’s would ask a Japanese prisoner questions like, “What did you have to eat?” whereas Dad’s specialized advanced language training taught him military terminology – like defillade and their written equivalents (usually in cursive).

    Last note: one of the prominent leaders of MIS veterans was Grant Ichikawa with whom I met. Unfortunately, his wife (Millie) of many, many years passed away just before we met in DC. She was also a rare female member of the MIS.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you very much for all this, Koji. I love hearing from you! This is why I am always sending people to you with some of their questions – the man in the know! (I hope you don’t mind.)

      Like

  8. This Nisei series has been incredibly interesting and informative. This post conveyed the internal conflict they must have felt between honoring their family heritage and serving the U.S. during the war despite the discrimination. If you don’t yet teach at a college somewhere, you should! Your blog offers such important historical information and your writing is always engaging. The students where I teach could use some of these amazing history lessons to give them much-needed perspective about the importance of “country” and all those who have and continue to serve – even those we hear little about such as the Nisei women.🇺🇸

    Liked by 1 person

  9. The nostalgia and authentic stories and pictures is sealed in time. I am always amazed at your collection of accounts from WWII. Excellent effort ! 🌸🌸🌸

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I love your blog, its fascinating.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. These women certainly had a lot of pressures on them and you highlight well the unfortunatley struggles that came on their shoulders during wartime, GP. I still think when people look back on wars they predominantly picture white males. It’s articles like this one that illustrate that not only were females in crucial roles, such as linguists, but they also were not necessarily caucasian! So glad you told me about this post and now I’m sharing it over on Twitter xx

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Such a wonderful post! Cheers to the Asian American nurses!
    And love the second comic where the man is reading comics and the lady is reading battle strategies –
    I am finishing up “bulls before breakfast” book and the author addressed the question of woman running with the bulls
    He said gender was not the issue
    It was being fit – wearing the right shoes (no flip flops) and other factors
    Good stuff to remember that gender does not decide readiness or ability

    Liked by 2 people

  13. I did not read it all, ADD but for what I did, is very informative, thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Further important reminders

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Fascinating perspective on the story, GP. I learn something new every time I read your work. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Wow patriotic Nisei women too!

    Liked by 2 people

  17. This series has been so important, informative and very interesting to read! (I haven’t commented on every post, but I’ve been reading!) I am so proud of women and how most of them are strong and determined and have the ability to step up when needed or when they think they can help! YAY, women! Thank you to all of those women who served and serve today…and thank you to all who supported the men and women who served. 🙂

    That cartoon of the male and female soldiers chose of reading material got a snort-laugh from me! 😀
    (((HUGS)))
    PS…I left a response to your comment on my LordBofB tribute post. Let me know what you think.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. This brilliantly covers a part of the war which is too often glossed over.

    Liked by 2 people

  19. I am constantly astonished at the contradictions that crept in during those years of combat.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Technology was coming into its own about now, data was becoming more available, but people were just coming out of the Great Depression, so many were unschooled, too busy trying to stay alive.

      Liked by 1 person

  20. Thank you for the very good, and highly informative series, GP! Best wishes, Michael

    Liked by 2 people

  21. That would certainly need to be addressed.

    Liked by 2 people

  22. Impressive to learn how they really wanted to be looked upon as Americans and wanted to come to the aid of our country. So proud of the way they served. Today people coming into our country want to wave their flag and have us change to speak their language. Not so with these fantastic Nisei. Very informative post!

    Liked by 2 people

  23. Women didn’t sit around knitting during the War. They were everywhere – mostly behind the scenes – but performing absolutely vital duties. My Mum was a nurse during the Blitz in London. Gore? I bet she saw more than your average Soldier. (NO disrespect intended). A nice report GP.

    Liked by 3 people

  24. This is a wonderful and terribly important post for so many reasons. Bravo!

    Liked by 2 people

  25. I can’t imagine the struggles of Japanese-American women then. You have done a great job bringing those struggles to light. Thanks, GP.

    Liked by 2 people

  26. Thank you for this well-researched and well-presented series on the Nisei. I learned a lot and was given a lot to think about.

    Liked by 2 people

  27. This has been an enlightening series, GP. How those service men and women coped with the inherent suspicion and prejudice yet still did their duty is to be greatly admired.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 2 people

  28. That took a lot of courage, on several fronts, for those women.

    Liked by 2 people

  29. Now, there’s a movie waiting to be made. We had Hidden Figures (an outstanding movie), now someone needs to the tell the Nisei WAC story.

    Incidentally, the cartoon of women in combat was on the money. While we were in the Gulf, we were stretched so thin, we sometimes needed women to watch over the POWs. We weren’t supposed to use them in that role. We had one young lady, who put on a flak jacket, made sure her hair was all up under her helmet, and she looked like Ron Howard’s little brother.

    Unless you knew who she was, or heard her speak, you’d never know that soldier was a woman. that sounds bad, because she was a very attractive girl.

    Liked by 3 people

  30. Another excellent post about a wonderful group of people who had so much to endure and to battle against. Perhaps the word “Nisei” should crop up in the discussion the next time the issue of statues, old and new, raises its contentious head.
    One final thought. Your nationality does not depend on the shape of your eyes or the colour of your skin, but on the thoughts you carry in your heart.

    Liked by 2 people

  31. Great series, GP. I don’t know about Nisei WAC. Something new I learn today. With racism and sexism against them, I give these Nisei women a lot of credit for their courageous stand to serve our country. Don’t forget that where their ancestors came from, it was a men’s world. Women stays at home and take care of their home and kids. Joining the WAC must be a shock to their parents.

    Liked by 2 people

  32. Brave ladies, this has been an interesting series GP.

    Liked by 2 people

  33. It would have been bad enough with them being Japanese, especially after Pearl Harbour. But it sounds even more horrific.

    Liked by 2 people

  34. I really admire the sense of duty, even in spite of the expectations and conditions. Stitching all the roles together paints a picture of war that is much bigger than the battlefield. Thanks so much for this series. I enjoyed it.

    Liked by 2 people

  35. Great post as usual. Thanks for enlightening me about the story of these courageous Americans.

    Liked by 2 people

  36. There is a contradiction in that, on the one hand, the military recognized the value of second-generation Japanese women but on the other ‘Japanese aliens’ were dispossessed and deported into internment camps. People were paranoid in those days and were afraid of their own citizens. So sad and tragical! GP, I learned a lot from reading your post this morning. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  37. Another great post. It is interesting how times changes. I remember during Basic, we had a female training units. They kept us carefully segregated.

    Unfortunately, service in the military often reflects the cultural norms of the period. There was a time Blacks could only serve in certain skill areas. I’ve heard stories about Asian men who could only serve in the European theater during WWII. Women have come so far in the military today as well, Vietnamese, Filipino, Chinese, and Japanese women included. During my time, it seemed many were Hispanic women.

    I have often thought that a good step on the path to citizenship for illegal immigrants might be to perform a period of service in the U.S. military, or maybe even similar (Peace Corp, Americorp, whatever).

    Liked by 2 people

  38. Complex layers, indeed! I loved this, GP. How formidable, the challenges they faced. I especially am interested in the brother-sister Harada experience. You just gave me another layer complexity (and readers will initially think I’m making this up!) that makes reading interesting. Thank you, GP. Oh, would you kindly email me? I have a question I suspect you would prefer not to be posted here… cbruchman@yahoo.com

    Liked by 2 people

  39. The Japanese people have strong intrinsic personal discipline and dignity. I guess it wasn’t easy for Americans to see past the nationality to discover this but it appears according to this well-researched post that we did. Thank you for this.

    Liked by 2 people

  40. GP, this is a phenomenal posting. I learned so much. You capture the problem of being a woman in the military very well. The added problem of being a Japanese woman would have doubled/tripled the obstacles. I wish our government had not forgotten the lessons from the Nisei in WWII, that immigrants have a long and proud tradition of serving in our Armed Forces. If they serve with honor, it should put them on a short path to citizenship. If you are willing to die for a country, don’t you deserve to be a citizen of that country?

    Liked by 5 people

  41. What a difference between the Nisei experience then, and the Vietnamese-American experience more than 30 years later. Vietnamese-American women have served as fighter pilots serving in the Middle East wars, and are now in almost every branch of the military.

    Liked by 5 people

  42. “With struggles against racism combined with normalized sexism in the military…”

    I can imagine they suffered a great deal of very ugly discrimination and contempt. To put up with it and perform their assigned duties shows they truly were Americans.

    Liked by 4 people

  43. Your opening question is perfect to open minds for the balance of the wonderful article.

    Liked by 4 people

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